A blustery storm dropped torrential rain and snow on Lebanon on Wednesday, forcing aid agencies to scramble to distribute desperately needed winter supplies like blankets and plastic tarps to Syrian refugees who have sought safe haven in the country.
The storm pushed temperatures below freezing in northern Lebanon and some areas of the Bekaa Valley, which is dotted with informal refugee settlements. The winter weather heaped another layer of misery on the already grim existence of many of the estimated 1.4 million Syrians in Lebanon who fled the civil war raging in their homeland.
“We are extremely concerned for the refugees this winter that promises to be very harsh,” Dana Sleiman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told The Associated Press.
Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, more than 2 million Syrians - at least half of them children - have fled the violence in their homeland to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Many will spend the winter in flimsy tents with often only a plastic sheet covering the ground.
As the storm, dubbed Alexa in Lebanon, hit Lebanon overnight, the UNHCR asked the Lebanese army to help distribute emergency kits, including blankets and plastic tarps to refugees living in the mountainous areas covered with snow.
In Marj, a Lebanese town near the border with Syria, refugees on Wednesday were piling up extra layers of plastic bags and tarps supplied by the UNHCR in an effort to reinforce their tents.
“I don’t know if this tent will hold up, it’s just a few flimsy pieces of metal holding it up,” said Abu Suleiman, eying his tent with worry. Abu Suleiman, who only agreed to give his nickname because of security concerns, has lived in the settlement with about 40 other families since fleeing the Damascus suburb of Jisreen five months ago with little more than the clothes on his back.
Unlike in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, the Lebanese government is not providing facilities and land to temporarily accommodate refugees despite the continuing influx into the country of 4.5 million. Many Syrians in Lebanon live in appalling conditions, finding shelter in slums, tents and tin shacks strung with laundry lines and wedged between farmland outside towns and cities.
In the capital, Beirut, many Syrians live in underground parking lots, under bridges and on old construction sites with no running water, sanitation, electricity or protection from Lebanon’s sizzling summers and its freezing winters.
“We are working harder than ever to protect more than 800,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” Sleiman said, adding that at least 80,000 Syrians in Lebanon will spend the winter in tents.
With no end to the conflict in sight and dwindling international support to help Syria’s neighbors cover the costs and burden of providing for influx, many of the refugees now worry about how they are going to survive the winter.
“We used to be scared of wolves coming inside the tents at night,” said Umm Mohammad, a 45-year-old refugee from the contested Damascus suburb of Daraya. “Now there’s so much more to worry about. ... How will we survive the winter?”
She spoke on condition that only her nickname be used out of fears of harassment.
In another part of the Marj settlement, which houses about 19,0000 refugees in total, an elderly Syrian used blankets to cover her grandchildren as they all sat inside a tent with no heating.
“I wish we had died in Syria, it would be better than this life and humiliation,” said Umm Yasser, 80, also giving only her nickname.
In the near-by Mansour settlement, some 13,000 refugees live on the banks of the Litani river next to a large garbage dump. Many of the tents collapsed from the heavy rain overnight.
“Imagine 18 people living in one tent, without heating, without bathroom,” said Abu Oday, another refugee. “Who can live like that?”
Syrian refugees in Lebanon bundle up against storm Alexa